His father was famed, fading poet Edgar Lee Masters. His mother (Lee's second, much-younger wife) was a teacher who--before...


LAST STANDS: Notes From Memory

His father was famed, fading poet Edgar Lee Masters. His mother (Lee's second, much-younger wife) was a teacher who--before it was fashionable--tried fiercely to put her career first. His maternal grandfather was a blazing-eyed, 19th-century Cavalry hero, with exhausted Grandma always straining to keep him calm. And here novelist Masters (Palace of Strangers) features these four edgy people in a stately, autumnal family-history mosaic: non-chronological sequences that begin with key events, then shade off into related memories. He begins with the 1954 Arlington funeral of grandfather Tom Coyne, a suicide at 94: the ceremony calls forth memories of Hilary's pre-teen years, living with ""Gee Gee"" and Grandma in Kansas City, Mo. Then it's 1950, with Hilary and mother Ellen on a train headed for Lee's funeral in Petersburg, Ill.--and, amid the hectic small-town arrangements, a portrait of the poet/father in his 60s and 70s begins to be sketched in: his desperate need to revive his plummeting 1930s reputation; his pursuit of tranquil creativity in N.Y.'s Chelsea Hotel (hence, Hilary's residence in Kansas City, except for exotic Manhattan summers). Next: a 1932 trip with grandparents and mother out west--Gee Gee driving wildly, pointing out the sites of his heroic youth, Hilary focusing in on his grandparents' marriage. (""His energy . . . had exhausted her, and the puritanical logic that barracked all of his emotions, all of his human relationships, had driven her spirit deeper into the sentimental rooms of her placid nature. . . ."") And, after a 1977 dinner with aged mother Ellen, who recites the familiar litany of Lee's undeserved eclipse (""an atlas of betrayal""), Hilary closes in on the family's sad, fragmented last decade: his grandmother's 1941 accident (knocked down by a truck), from which she'd never really recover; his parents' growing separation--with Hilary shifted from school to school, household to household (arriving unwanted on Christmas Eve at his father's hotel door); his father's near-fatal isolation, with a humiliating rescue by Ellen; and a brief last glimpse of almost everyone (Gee Gee is in the Soldiers Home) together and--for a moment--chatting happily. True, Masters' oblique approach occasionally can seem a bit precious and over-tooled. And the grandparental material is considerably less potent than the more immediate father/mother memories. Still, in its solemn, gently unfolding way, this is a shrewd, delicately gloomy study in complex, wayward family ties--deepened by the pathos of aging, sharpened by the portrait of the post-Spoon River Edgar Lee Masters (bitter, near-forgotten, philandering) that flickers on and off throughout.

Pub Date: Nov. 11, 1982

ISBN: 0870744925

Page Count: -

Publisher: Godine

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1982